Tis the season for skin parasites and for me that’s also a time to panic. The dry summer season is when all skin parasites really boom in population including lice, ticks, fleas and mites. My dogs are long suffering and allergic to many flea meds but we manage to keep their unwanted passengers under control by hook or by crook. My chickens are a different story.
Here’s the thing to know about me: I’m a veritable font of chicken knowledge, but I’m really bad at implementing all of that wisdom in my own coop. I didn’t do any of the preventative treatments that I frequently recommend to customers at the feed store and I took a couple days to check on my chickens when they started shedding feathers like crazy so I ended up with a major pest problem and had to scurry to relieve my hens of their itchy creepy crawlies.
Mites vs. Lice: What is the difference?
Mites and lice are two of the most common skin parasites that chickens get. Both cause irritation which will often cause chickens to scratch and pull out their feathers, and preventative treatment is similar for both.
Red Mites are mostly nocturnal and feed on the chickens’ blood, similar to fleas on your cat or dog. These can actually kill your chickens and carry fowl pox, poultry cholera, and New Castle Disease. Preventative treatment is crucial as they have long lifespans and can survive for extended periods, up to a year, without feeding on your flock. Usually recommended treatment schedule is every 4 months if no infection is apparent (though I personally recommend no more than 3 months between preventative treatments) and every 5-7 days if it is. Treatment can include diatomaceous earth powdering, permethrin/pyrethrum spray or powder, or PYthon Dust for more drastic intervention (more on all these below). Holistic remedies call for pungent oils and herbs such as mint, tea tree, lemon-eucalyptus, and fleabane as well as sticky herbs like Elecampane and fresh Tobacco to trap them. Tobacco also has the added benefit of nicotine being a insecticide and smoking tobacco can be added to their dust baths and nesting boxes to kill buggies and deter breeding.
Common Poultry Lice, though more benign than mites, are still a blight and cause extreme stress to your birds, often affecting laying and fertility. There are a couple other types of lice but these are the most frequent culprits and prefer the areas around the vent and rump. Chicken lice feed mainly on feathers and dead skin, but will also bite the skin of chickens and leave itchy irritated areas especially around the vent and under the wings. At first glance they almost look like little off-white or yellow maggots but closer inspection shows that they have legs and tiny pincers. Some birds that are better at grooming can keep lice in check but hot weather and other stressors including overcrowding, poor nutrition, and pecking, can overwhelm even the best groomed birds in a flock. Because lice transmit through contact with infected birds as well as dropped feathers, they can overwhelm a flock very quickly. As with mites, cleaning out the coop and treating the area as well as the chickens is critical to controlling this pest. Ensure that no feathers are left behind as these can continue to feed the lice and reinfect your flock even when treatment has been successful. Direct treatments for lice are very pretty much identical to those for mites but added is the treatment for nits, the egg clusters which adhere to feathers. These can be coated in vaseline or coconut oil to suffocate developing lice and prevent them from hatching.
Why do my chickens have parasites?
You may wonder how these pests get into your coop and run. The answer is often in the form of other critters. Wild birds carry many of the same pests and diseases that affect chickens, and they are attracted to your chickens by the sweet lure of easy feed. Putting feed in less outwardly accessible areas can reduce the number of wild birds coming into contact with your flock, but probably won’t eliminate it entirely so even a well secured flock should be treated several times each year to prevent parasite infections. Another common visitor is rodents. Mice and rats, while unaffected by mites and lice themselves can carry infected materials into your run. Rats also carry numerous other diseases so rat-proofing your chicken area is very important. I have been struggling with this myself this year, and while I know I have reduced the population of rats here and there, they are also growing fat on my chicken feed and continue to reproduce.
What do you recommend?
Before I continue, I would like to make clear that these recommendations are made purely on my own. I am not endorsing these products because of anything other than their efficacy in my experience and those in my community.
For Mites and Lice:
This is an extremely potent insecticide and has a wide range of applications for controlling livestock pests. Though it is recommended for large livestock, it is also effective for chickens though should be used in moderation and only for extreme infections.
This is a preventative treatment containing Permethrin, a synthetic form of pyrethrum, the insecticide found in chrysanthemums. Prozap can be used to treat low level infection when they are detected early, but once the infection is bad, you may want to use something stronger, like PYthon. This stuff also works as an excellent preventative treatment and can be used every 6-12 weeks to keep pesky parasites from bothering yourbirds.
Diatomaceous Earth (a.k.a. DE)
This is a fine mineral powder made from ground fossil crustaceans called diatoms. The mineral structure is such that it cuts the waxy coating that protects insects and dehydrates them. It will also dry out any eggs it comes into contact with. There is some controversy though, as some people feel that the fine dust poses risks to the chickens’ respiratory health. Personally, I am happy to add this to dust baths, nest boxes and run as a preventative and mild treatment for parasites both external and internal. DE is easily obtained as food-grade and is totally organic, making a great choice for small farmers concerned about chemical exposure. Many health food stores carry this in their cosmetics section while Hardware stores usually have it in their garden section.
Permethrin and Pyrethrum sprays
These are widely available by many different names. They can cause some skin irritation when used as a topical remedy, but make a great disinfectant for coop cleaning. Some are also available with herbal additives like eucalyptus, mint, and lemon oils which also act as valuable pest deterrants. When shopping for these insecticidal sprays make sure to find one that is pet and/or child-safe so you know the solvents and additives won’t harm you birds.
The is a household item that can prove exceptionally good at reducing louse populations. Nits, the egg clusters attached to the feather bases can be generously slathered in petroleum jelly which chokes the eggs and prevents them from hatching. This is especially handy around sensitive areas that lice and mites attach such as around the vent, ears, eyes, and wattles.
Nesting Box Blend from Treats for Chickens
Add a small handful of this blend of wonderful smelling herbs to discourage mites and lice from setting up shop. It also keeps down the smell of poo in the coop between cleanings. Try to find it in the bulk section of your local feed stores. it tends to be much fresher and affordable this way. You can also consider mixing up your own batch of dry herbs including mint, lavender, bay leaf, calendula, chamomile, and catnip among others.
This plant has been valued for millenia for its strong minty smell and insect repellant abilities. It is however toxic(liver necrosis even in small doses) and should never be left for chickens to eat. I have a plant in my garden from which I pick sprigs to put into the bottom of their nesting boxes under the straw. I don’t recommend using it anywhere else in their coop for risk of ingestion and it should be grown out of reach of pets and children. Pennyroyal oil is also sometimes available but because of its concentration and risk of skin contact, it poses even greater risk than the fresh or dried leaves. Pennyroyal is an old remedy and a good one but we have advanced enough now to understand the dangers too.
My treatment regimen is completed and I think I’ve got these suckers under control. I may decide to give them one last round of PYthon on Monday to be certain that I won’t be seeing lice and mites again because there are chicks in my living room, and pullets finishing at my breeder’s farm in Gilroy that will be joining the big birds in the next couple weeks.